It had never occurred to me that there are different types of corn. I mean, I have seen the white, yellow and even blue varieties, and understood that there are botanical differences between them, but I had always thought that the corn I boil and serve to the kids is the same as the corn that goes into the breakfast cereal.
It turns out this is not the case at all.
In fact there are two distinct categories of corn that are used for two equally distinct purposes. Field corn, more commonly referred to as ‘maize’, is a straw-coloured tough and knobbly plant whose kernels are ripened on the stalk until they are almost completely dry. Low in sugar and high in starch, this is the corn that becomes transformed into flakes, cornflour and all manner of bakery items.
In another paddock one might find a green-hued corn with soft and pliable kernels. This corn has high reserves of sugar, and produces a milky-white sap if cut. This is sweet corn, also know as ‘Indian corn’, a naturally occurring mutation of the older maize that is believed to have first emerged in mid-18th century America, well after European settlement.
While maize had been popular with the settlers of the New World as a fast-growing and highly productive crop that enabled bread production, the sweeter version gave them a table vegetable in additional to the cereal grain they already cultivated. This was a major step forward in the food needs of the emergent population as malnutrition was common, mostly due to a lack of amino acids.
Scientists studying the diet of early American settlers discovered that while neither corn nor beans (the two staple foods of the period) contained a sufficient balance of essential nutrients, when eaten together something extraordinary happens. The corn contains an enzyme that make the amino acids in the beans digestible, while the beans contain an enzyme that make the calories of the corn more readily absorbed. It was a natural partnership.
Sweet corn is always picked at an immature stage, while the sap is still present, but sometimes the corn is picked even earlier, at a truly immature stage we know as baby corn. This corn is plucked before the long threads called ‘silks’ emerge. These silks are the device by which the plant reproduces, extending out beyond the ear to collect passing pollen. As these baby corn have not become sexually mature, they are also significantly less sweet, as the sugar development occurs as part of the process by which maturation takes place.
Baby corn is especially popular in East Asia, where it was considered a badge of wealth after the plant’s introduction in the 19th century. But today, it’s more widely used, especially as an easy way to get vegetables into stubborn children.
Roast Chinese chicken with baby corn